Irondale concert choir learns and sings in Cantus residency program

The concert choir sang "Loch Lomond," with choir teacher Jason Etten conducting. Etten said he seeks to build communities in his classes. "Let's take it seriously, let's grow together," he said. (Mike Munzenrider/Bulletin)

Cantus' Chris Foss lead the Irondale honors concert choir through a voice exercise that worked their vocal cords as well as the rest of their bodies. (Mike Munzenrider/Bulletin)

As students noisily streamed into third period honors concert choir class at Irondale High School the morning of Sept. 30, one student took a seat at the piano and played some familiar tunes.

Amid the hubbub, he started with Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" before segueing into Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." Large swaths of the 70 or so students in the class spontaneously chimed in, singing: "Do-on't stop, beliiiiiieving..."

They sang well. There was a palpable buzz in the air. Class started at 9:31.


That Tuesday was the class' first of three sessions in the Cantus High School Residency program, in which members of the critically acclaimed nine-man local vocal ensemble, Cantus, come at no cost to work with students on their singing skills.

Each school year, Cantus (Latin for "singing," pronounced "can-toose"), chooses three metro area high schools for its residency program, one urban, one suburban and one exurban. 

Along with the in-class teaching, the group performs a concert at the schools, offers students free tickets to one of its shows and prepares the students for a joint concert put on by the residency program schools and Cantus in the spring of 2016.

Choir teacher Jason Etten explained applying for the program, calling it "a process," saying it required letters from students, parents and administrators, as well as himself, along with audio recordings of the school choir.

"It's a fantastic opportunity for us," Etten, who has taught for more than 17 years, said.

"We get the most enthusiastic kids," Cantus member and the day's residency program leader Aaron Humble said. "We want to be in the schools that are most excited to have us."

Humble is the longest tenured member of Cantus, involved since 2005. Among other things, he teaches voice at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, has appeared on NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion" and was a judge on the television show "Palestinian Idol."

Humble explained that Cantus is a full-time job, and for its residency program, it shuttles three singers to each school, swapping members in and out each year. He said it was a pleasure to be involved in the program.

Chris Foss, a member of Cantus since 2008, who also teaches voice at McNally Smith, was on hand, along with first-year ensemble member Zachary Colby, who teaches voice at Eagan High School.

Following an introduction in which Etten told his students to "Do whatever they tell you," the guys from Cantus took over.

Singing lessons

Humble warmed up the class, with stretches of both the body and face. The choir brought their voices up to speed with a series of infectious voice exercises that had the Bulletin reporter doing all he could not to join in.

Humble then took to the electronic white board and asked the students about their goals as a choir. 

Answers pinged in from around the choir room, with Etten sometimes stepping in to moderate, showing off a snappy repartee with his students.

To one suggestion, Colby, who typed notes on a laptop throughout the class, looked up from the computer and asked, "Are you in band? That's a total band thing."

The choir laughed.

Before long the class had decided it needed to work on balance, enunciation and energy.

"Energy is no problem for this group," Etten said.

"We'll keep those things in mind while visiting this year and work on these things right now," said to the class, adding after that he was impressed with how the choir was able to pinpoint the areas where it needed work.

"I'm really fascinated that the kids can reach consensus on areas of [improvement]," Humble said, because adults, in his experience, can rarely do so.

Following another voice exercise lead by Foss, with their goals in mind, the students took out their songbooks to sing the old Scottish song, "Loch Lomond," with Etten directing and Foss giving pointers.

Following what sounded like a very good rendition of the song to the untrained ear, Etten had the class start over to work out some kinks, then Foss honed in on a section to work on the choir's enunciation.

Foss had the choir run through a number of actions, like singing in their minds before switching octaves to sing out loud, and switching out the lyrics from the song in favor of different words in order to unify their pitch.

Following another run through, the men from Cantus were pleased.

"Do you hear how much better that is in tune?" Humble asked. "It's because you're all [now] singing the same vowel."

Passing time

Following a round of applause for Cantus and some class announcements -- permission slips are due, boys, make sure your concert dress from last year still fits -- Humble said free tickets to an upcoming Cantus concert were available to the students.

At least one student responded with an excited, "Yes!"

Later, both Etten and the Cantus singers said the residency program was a unique opportunity for them to better their respective crafts.

"Anytime you teach you learn about your own voice," Humble said.

Etten, who said he brings in clinicians and experts a couple of times a year to work with his classes and had recently brought in a local church choir director who is from Brazil to help the choir perfect a song in Portuguese.

"I learn and they learn: I take notes too," Etten said. "[I learn] new ways to teach with new approaches to it. I don't know everything."

With the period over at 10:27, the choir room emptied quickly as students had seven minutes to get to their next class.

On their way out, seniors Taylor Stroschein and Audrey Clarke were quick to praise the residency program.

"It's really cool, we're learning a lot," Stroschein said, adding that she appreciated being able to go through that type of instruction before finishing high school.

Said Clarke, "It's super awesome."

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at or 651-748-7824. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

The Irondale High School Concert Choir does voice exercises and sing "Loch Lomon" during its first session in the Cantus Residency Program.

If you go...

Fall choir concerts at Irondale

The Irondale High School Choir Department presents their Fall Concerts on Monday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 p.m. The concert features the Varsity Men's and Women's Choirs, Knightingales Choir, and the Concert Choir. The concerts are free and open to all. A good-will donation will be taken at the door. Irondale High School is located at 2425 Long Lake Road in New Brighton. 

For more information, call 651-621-6800.

Cantus "Anthem" concerts

Cantus kicks off its 2014-2015 concert season with "Anthem" performances at a number of venues throughout the metro area Oct. 16-26. Described as a "why we sing" concert, the first performance is Thursday, Oct. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis. For tickets or more information, visit or call 612-435-0055.


Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)
Comment Here